Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) was the Bad Boy of his day and time. A Rock N Roll rebel before there was such a thing. Seemingly always in trouble with the law, all too ready for a fight, and deadly if crossed, Caravaggio was also among the most important painters of his or any era. His use of chiaroscuro was stunning for its dramatic impact and innovation, while his subject matter blazed new ground for in-your-face heresy. In short, he lived his life like a storm.
Art needs to move. It often needs to simulate motion in order to move you, the viewer. Artists for millennia have known that slashing lines, high contrast, and sharp juxtapositions of color and shape generally impact the viewer more than static scenes with nice verticals and horizontals. The Baroque Era pushed this concept further than any previous artistic period. Dramatic diagonals were in. Deep blacks forced bright colors outward into the face of the audience, charged the room with new electricity, before Franklin, before Edison, before GE.
Mannerism to Realism and Naturalism. Caravaggio was one of the keys to flipping art from its Mannerist stage onto Realism and Naturalism. He took painting in the direction of the hard-boiled, like Hemingway, James L. Cain and Raymond Chandler with literature.
Was it because he lived on the edge, a James Dean speeding toward the edge of the cliff? Did he paint in a hard-boiled manner because his own life was like something out of a detective novel set in 17th century Rome? Making that connection is all too easy. It’s something many of us who care about his art like to do. But if it’s true, then what do we say about those great painters, writers, philosophers and musicians who lived seemingly uneventful, peaceful lives, yet made intense, even violent art?
And what about all of those decapitations in his paintings? Oftentimes, the severed head was a self-portrait. Freud equated decapitations with castration (with fear of castration, too), so it’s easy to make that leap for Caravaggio as well. But I’m not so sure. His enigmatic poses, the provocative gaze on the faces of so many of his subjects, lead many to quick judgments concerning various forms of eroticism. But Caravaggio literally carried a sword with him everywhere he went, for years. Perhaps he had the right to be concerned with losing his head.
The gaze. He looks at us, enigmatically. Is he calling us closer, deeper into the dark contrasts of his paintings? Or is he push-pulling us into ambiguity and eternal hesitations? Oftentimes the best art is undefinable. On more than one occasion, I worked on a painting too long and ruined it. We can do the same when we analyze them. Cutting off their heads to spite their bodies. The body of art. The drama. The mystery.